Apologetics,  Christian Living,  Culture,  Ethics

Early Christian Opposition to Abortion

Abortion is killing of a baby

Honestly, I am not surprised when some people claim to be Christians yet support abortion. I guess I am used to people claiming to be Christians while denying that claim by supporting all sorts of immoral nonsense. It is easy to claim to be a Christian. However, in contrast to many false believers who claim Jesus, real Christians are marked by commitment to Christ and His commandments. Real Christians are committed to the teachings of Jesus (John 13:35; 1 John 2:3) as well the teachings of Scripture as a whole (2 Tim 3:14-17).

So, although I have seen my fair share of self-identifying Christians support abortion, I must admit I was a bit surprised recently when I saw a pastor of a megachurch come out and say abortion and Christianity are completely compatible. Of course a Christian analysis of this situation would affirm that abortion remains incompatible with a Christian worldview, but it speaks volumes that a well known mega church pastor thinks abortion is something good to be affirmed.

Christian Culture and Abortion

Although a pastor supporting abortion is in and of itself rather shocking, I received another shock when examining the 2020 findings of Lifeway Research in the biannual State of Theology analysis. In the 2020 survey of 3,002 respondents, Lifeway Research found that only 51% of Americans agreed with the statement, “Abortion is a sin.”

abortion agreement/disagreement statistics
Results for the statement, “Abortion is a sin.”
https://thestateoftheology.com/

Scripture and Abortion

The reason this is so surprising to me, is because the theology of Scripture is so clear. All human beings are made in the image of God (Gen 1:27). There is no reason to exclude preborn children from this category. Biblically, children are treated as persons before their birth (Ps 139:13–16), and they even are able to respond to what God is doing on the outside (Luke 1:39–41). It comes as no surprise that Mosaic Law expects justice to be done to an individual who causes harm to a preborn child (Exod 21:22–25).

Although there is no indication Josephus was a believer, he provides a good 1st century witness to the Jewish understanding of the Law. He understood the Old Testament Law to forbid abortion.

The law, moreover enjoins us to bring up all our offspring, and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward; and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature, and diminishing humankind (Against Apion, 2:202).

Early Christians and Abortion

Abortion was commonplace in Greek and Roman societies. However, from the earliest records we have, the church strongly opposed abortion and took steps to care for unwanted children.

One of the earliest documents we have from the early church is The Letter of Barnabas, which dates to late 1st century or early 2nd century AD. Barnabas prohibits abortion in the midst of a string of commands:

Thou shalt love thy neighbour more than thy own life. Thou shalt not procure abortion, thou shalt not commit infanticide (Barnabas, 19:5).  

Similarly, The Didache, which is an early Christian summary of doctrine dating to the same time period notes the following:

Thou shalt not procure abortion, nor commit infanticide (Didache, 2:1)

Marcus Felix was a Roman lawyer who converted to Christianity in the 2nd or 3rd century AD. He wrote Octavius, which was one of the first apologetic defenses of Christianity. The capstone of his argument is that Christians “do not preach great things, but live them.” (38:6). With regard to abortion, apparently some in the Roman community accused Christians of murdering infants and drinking their blood. In response, Marcus Felix writes in chapter 30 of his work that the murder of babies was a gentile practice only:

“There are some women who, by drinking medical preparations, extinguish the source of the future man in their very bowels, and thus commit a parricide before they bring forth.”

But for a Christian, Marcus argued, “To us it is not lawful either to see or to hear of homicide; and so much do we shrink from human blood, that we do not use the blood even of eatable animals in our food.”

Athenagoras was another Ante-Nicene apologist (probably from Athens) who lived during the 2nd century AD. In his apology, A Plea for the Christians, Athenagoras promotes the fact that Christians condemn all forms of murder, and he specifically talks about abortion.

And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fœtus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it (A Plea for Christians, Ch 35).

Logically, because Christians were against abortion they were also against infanticide, which was often practiced in the Roman world by leaving an infant exposed out in the elements. Christians were known to adopt many of these exposed children and to raise them as their own. The exposed children would often die despite the care of the Christians. There are many inscriptions on tombs in the catacombs which demonstrate that Christians considered the children part of their family and saw to a proper burial for them.  

Tertullian is a well-known 3rd century apologist, and he spoke with great clarity against abortion.  

In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fœtus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. (The Apology, Ch 9)

Tertullian also gives testimony of an early belief that life begins at conception (this is not a novel idea by Christians). In his discussion on the human soul he notes the following:

Now we allow that life begins with conception, because we contend that the soul also begins from conception (The Apology, Ch 27).

John Chrysostom (c. 347–407 AD), one of the most celebrated orators of the early church spoke very harshly about abortion—calling it something worse than murder!

You see how drunkenness leads to whoredom, whoredom to adultery, adultery to murder; or rather to a something even worse than murder. For I have no name to give it, since it does not take off the thing born, but prevent its being born (Homilies on Romans, Ch 24).

The evidence could go on and on, but I think it is sufficient to say that it has always been intrinsically Christian to oppose abortion because abortion is the killing of innocent life. The fact that there are major pastors today who support abortion does not change that fact. The fact that only 51% of so-called Christians think abortion is wrong does not change the truth of the matter. The fact that almost half of so-called Christians do not oppose abortion says more about their phony claim of being Christian than anything else.  

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

3 Comments

  • Alexander Krause

    It’s clear from the bible that the unborn are comprehensible persons. John the Baptist, at 6 months in the womb, leaped at the just-conceived Jesus in Mary’s body. Therefore, at conception, the unborn are persons.
    Of course, it would be a sin for a Christian to advocate for abortion, or, worse, to be party to the procedure. Having said these things, I wonder, however, if it is right for Christians to meddle in other people’s affairs. What I mean is, that if an unbelieving woman is wanting the pregnancy termination, she already, for sure, knows the issues that have been swirling in society these last 50 years. She has already made up her mind about the issue before engaging in a promiscuous lifestyle. Why not let unbelievers terminate their children instead of having them grow up either uncared for or taught bad things and so become a detriment to greater society?
    Should Christians be self-righteous arbiters in a society made up of mostly unrighteous folks? Is this a sublte trap since we will ever be “the few” against “the many.” Why do we not continue to advocate for adoption of the unwanted? I have great reservations and conflicts about this issue. Sometimes I think this issue is driven by misguided Postmillenialism and it will come back around to bite us.

    • Ty Briggs

      If a fetus is a distinct, living human being, then abortion is murder.

      “I wonder, however, if it is right for Christians to meddle in other people’s affairs.”
      – It’s murder. If someone was planning to kill you, wouldn’t you want someone to meddle in their affairs?

      “she already, for sure, knows the issues that have been swirling in society these last 50 years. She has already made up her mind about the issue before engaging in a promiscuous lifestyle.”
      – The propogandists of the abortion industry have spent exorbitant amounts of money ensuring that most women seeking abortion truly believe that the fetus is a non-human “clump of cells” or a “parasite”. Others don’t want to abort but have been convinced that they have no other choice. Regardless, even if a woman knows exactly what she’s doing (killing another human being, her child) and still chooses to go through with it, her acknowledgement of the reality of the situation doesn’t allow us to sit by and let it happen. This is the tragedy of the Uvalde shooting. The cops knew what was going on inside, and did *nothing* even as parents and neighbors were screaming and pleading for them to intervene. The shooter in that case knew exactly what he was doing, but that doesn’t mean anyone had the right to sit by and do nothing.

      “Why not let unbelievers terminate their children instead of having them grow up either uncared for or taught bad things and so become a detriment to greater society?”
      – Because it’s not our place to play God and determine who gets to live or die because of who their parents were. Friedrich Nietzsche’s father was a pastor and he grew up to be one of the most influential atheists in history. Rahab was a prostitute born into a pagan, child sacrificing culture and became a part of the geneology of Christ.

      “Should Christians be self-righteous arbiters in a society made up of mostly unrighteous folks?”
      – Yes. That’s the whole point of preaching the gospel and bringing an unbelieving world into the kingdom of God. People are dying. Again, if you were about to be murdered wouldn’t you want a “self-righteous arbiter” doing everything he/she could to stop it from happening?

      “Why do we not continue to advocate for adoption of the unwanted?”
      – There are nine crisis pregnancy centers for every abortion clinic, almost all of which are founded, staffed, and funded by Christians. Evangelical Christians consistenty foster more, adopt more, and give more than any other demographic. Could we do more? Sure. But don’t buy the pro-abortion propoganda that “pro-lifers only care about the baby until it’s born”.

      • Alexander Krause

        To Ty Briggs,
        What you have written are philosophical derivative conclusions. I am not saying in some cases these principles should not be followed. In this case, it is not so clear. I would argue for a principle of non-intervention in the mores of societies at large from biblical history. Did the Israelites oppose other cultures of child murder to intervene? Rahab was someone who the Lord saved, individually, without Israel being engaged in trying to save the world.
        In the pages of O.T. History, I see a call for personal repentance instead of societal restructuring. The same can be said in Roman society that Peter Goeman’s article discusses. Where were the calls to transform Roman society in scripture? I believe, though I could be wrong, that moral calls were towards Christians to act better and not a call for societal change. Whenever they did switch to societal restructuring, they were wrong. An example is the Crusades, which, along with this issue, I believe, is misguided. It sounded good, for sure, but history tells a different story. Scripture is my guide, not hairbrained ideas.
        You sound like a lawyer arguing a case in the wrong jurisdiction. The gospel is NOT about bringing an unbelieving world into the kingdom. I mean, it is, but not in those terms. Christ calls His sheep, and only His sheep. People don’t believe because they are not His sheep (Jn. 10.26). How I read my bible is that God is saving a remnant out of many dead (to God) people. This is consistent throughout scripture and cannot be denied. Yet, it sounds like you want to save the world. It’s not going to happen. Don’t put words into my mouth either. I said nothing about social support.
        You seem to be trying to change the world. The devil has been given this world and it is his. We are ambassadors in a foreign country. In principle, we should NOT be trying to change the customs and laws of where we serve. Such action is a fool’s errand. You seem to be captive to your own imagination of how things should be, and have been persuaded by well-meaning ideas that, in a sublte way, are wrong. Perhaps, instead of being a moral crusader, you should try to see what the bible says.

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